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February 6, 2000 (Homecoming)
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February 6, 2000 -- HOME(?)COMING

Overkill, Everywhere

It’s Gary’s birthday and we’re on a JFK runway about to take off for Antigua. We had a snowy, frigid visit, which didn’t endear us to the-place-that-used-to-be-called-Home. The day Pauxatawny Phil crept out of his warren and raced right back in I felt like crawling in along with him.

If you’re curious, we are both elated to be returning, but for me there are pangs of sadness. If only I could shrink my daughter into a carry-on bag and take her with me, I’d suffer no qualms about leaving New York. Our other, more far-flung, children I am used to doing without on a regular basis, but not having Suey always just around the corner is painful. The two of us spent luxurious time together this week, which makes me feel particularly sad to leave her.

We also had healthy injections of grandchild. We got to see 2 ½-year-old Ronnie for an overnighter. And I spent 5 days with the triplets – including a hectic 32-hour babysitting stint all by myself, with Gary as loving-but-lackluster assistant. (His never-change-a-diaper record remains unblemished.) Meanwhile I maintained their 5–meal-a-day regimen, presided over group baths; I can’t count how many diaper changes and requests for book-reading and how many hundreds of rounds of "Where’s Timmy?" And loved every minute.

They’re now 16-months old, but developmentally remain within the parameters of premature babies. Only Zoe is walking, reeling around like a stupefied drunk, but she’s frenetic enough for all three. Meanwhile Timmy and Maggie are each crawling off in different directions – or they’re zeroing in at the same toy.

Right now there are only small confrontations over shared toys or books. They still don’t interact much, but I don’t envy Lisa when Zoe, who’s already set herself up to be ringleader, dispatches the other two off on mischievous errands. The three of them are breathtakingly cute, look nothing alike and get stopped and cooed over every 10 feet whenever they’re out in the world. Getting them out, however, requires the timing and preparation of an Apollo launch and keeping them amused in their strollers, the entertaining skills of a Ringling Brothers circus.


Gary and I arrived at John & Lisa’s big new home in Blue Bell, a Philadelphia suburb last Friday, to the icy remnants of a snow storm and threats of an ominous new one to come – complete with 24-hour TV storm centers, histrionic anchorpersons and ski-jacketed reporters out in the field, each trying to scoop the other for that first flake. These days as much coverage is given to the weather as to the assassination of a president. Overwrought, not-exactly-news television news coverage is yet another feature of our former life that we surely don’t miss.

We did get some snow – maybe 4 to 5 inches but not the doom-and-gloom blizzard promised – and I almost immediately managed to drive John & Lisa’s van right-smack into a wrong turn on the way to the supermarket, straight into a construction-site culvert. There I sat, marooned in an icy snowdrift, in my flimsy Caribbean sneakers and lightweight windbreaker – all rendering me further aware I no longer belong here. Fortunately, a construction crew was working nearby. Six burly guys lumbered over in puffy down jackets and hip boots and pushed me up and out. As I drove away, one of them noticed the Illinois license plates still on the van, and yelled, "Lady, you sure did make a wrong turn!"

The supermarket was a big disappointment – a not-so-peak experience, especially since for the last 3 months I’ve been bemoaning the empty-shelved Caribbean groceries, the lack of Costco’s and the impossibility of finding a head of lettuce or a bag of carrots.

Since I’d envisioned it a peak experience of our visit homecoming, at the first opportunity I volunteered for the food and staples run. Genuardi’s (it’s a local Pennsylvania chain, rather like Gristede’s in New York) turned out to be a supreme example of mega-market, one that puts to shame the new, much touted new New Rochelle Stop ‘N’ Shop Super Store.

But, despite the thrill of actually being able to get whatever I needed, I found it a monument to ridiculous superfluity and monumental over-consumption. It goes a long way to explaining why 2/3 (I think) of the US population is considered overweight (or was it actually obese?)

I was already unnerved, as I sailed through the automatic doors, by my recent encounter in the snow: anxious to get in, get out and get back to the babies. And I was approaching wreck mode by the time I emerged, which must have been an hour and a half later -- despite the fact that my list should have put me in the under-10-items lane.

By the time I got through the produce department (the bane of my vegetable-deprived island existence) my cart was brimming and my heart thundering in my chest like a freight train. I don’t ever remember seeing so much variety and such unblemished produce, though I’m sure I must have – like at Eli’s or Balducci’s or Zabar’s -- in my former life. Suffice it to say that there were four kinds of tofu – Firm, Medium-Firm, Soft and Silken (Tofu? Silken?)

Then came the nut/dried-fruit/trail mix department, where I found myself so bowled over by the selection I started counting the varieties of just nuts. I had no idea they could do so many things to a nut: honey-roasted I knew about, but pepper-coated and soy-drenched were new to me. When I got to around 35 nut types, I gave up the count, though in truth I did notice a few repeats in the peanut category. I was surprised to come upon my beloved Virgin Gorda Wasabi Peas, so I bought up the entire bin’s worth. (Fortunately it was almost empty, though when I returned to get the SKU number for the cashier, it had already been refilled to brimming, a virtual impossibility in the Caribbean, where deliveries meander in once or twice a week.)

I had the beginnings of a headache when I reached the meat department’s outskirts.(Let me count the ways, besides hot and sweet Italian, you can now love a sausage: pork, beef, turkey, chicken, veal, sun-dried tomato, spinach/parmesan, apple/parmesan, Portobello mushroom/mozzarella.) When I finally reached the custom-rolled cold sushi and custom-toasted hot panini counters at Genuardi’s other end, the unaccustomed sensory barrage had my head throbbing to the tune of three Extra Strength Tylenols and my heart still palpitating wildly.

Getting through took so long because the sheer volume of product had me riveted in almost every aisle and unable to move for minutes at a time. I really got held up in the sushi department when I decided on a a small midmorning snack -- a self-congratulatory gift for finding my way almost out of the Genuardi’s labyrinth.

It was a tough decision, choosing among the vast array of freshly prepared hot foods: vats of multi-ingredient soups; trays of plump, crunchy-skinned fried chicken; hand-made overstuffed deli sandwiches; 8 or 9 kinds of pizza; oversized burritos; custom-mixed salads and a quarter-mile-long salad bar. I settled on sushi after one particularly tense debate with myself when I reached a hillock of panini ready to be inserted into machines resembling waffle irons that clamp down, melt the cheese and crisp up the focaccia.

Sushi won because it simply isn’t available in the Caribbean (unless you count our St Maarten encounter at the sushi counter of a bald, droopy-mustached, middle-aged Frenchman named Michel, who looked more like your Jewish Uncle Herbie the Tailor than any Japanese sushi chef –- and indeed, his paper-thin fish slices tasted more like shirt cardboard than tuna.)

I should have known I was on shaky selection ground at Genuardi’s when I saw the large framed certificate pronouncing June Tsing the winner of the entire chain’s Most Improved Sushi Department Contest. June herself was behind the counter, which proferred a candy store’s worth of prepared sushi, all of which fish types I was familiar with, but also a hefty selection of esoteric maki rolls, rivaling even the most creative New York sushi chefs. Plus, in a flurry of mismatched "w’s" June was promising to make me anything I could "dweam up, wight away and pwease, have some gween tea whiwe you wait."

That is, any combination if I could succeed in explaining it to her – no easy feat when you’re dealing with a small language barrier and a sushi artiste who is convinced there are no permutations she hasn’t already offering. I pondered carefully, enunciated clearly and, in the end, came up with something to challenge her: an inside-out, extra-spicy Spicy Tuna Roll with avocado and cucumber -- and flying fish egg roe both inside and out. Extra ginger and extra soy sauce, of course.

Speaking yet again about Extra Sauce, I got out of Genuardi’s for a mere $139 worth of goods, when all I’d come for was coffee, lettuce milk and juice for the babies. Some of the extras were selected because I’d decided it was about time to start propelling my grandchildren toward More Sauce Avenue, because right now their preference is whole milk with shots of strawberry syrup, hot dogs, Log-Cabin soaked pancakes and honey Graham Crackers.

Sushi, I knew, was far too advanced for them so I returned home with a few red bananas, some dried apple slices and apricots. Only Zoe bit, returning for seconds on the apricots. Everything else was greeted with clamped-shut little rosebud mouths and determined little face-swivels. I don’t consider the battle lost, however, and my return sortie will include Wasabi Peas at the very least, if not Spicy Tuna maki rolls.

I encountered similar overkill problems in the Food Court at the King of Prussia Mall, where Lisa, an au pair, Suey and I schlepped the kids one day. Not only was I stuck deciding between Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Mexican, fill-your belly Deli and California Fusion restaurants, plus more standard-fare McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut, but once I’d made up my mind to go the fresh, healthy route, I couldn’t decide between the Nicoise Salad and the Veggie Wrap – and ended up ordering both,


Overeating, Lulu Style

Double-ordering is a practice I’ve been trying hard to discontinue in my new life. I’ve heard that every new female liveaboard returns from a year in the Caribbean much like she did in Freshman year of college – 15 pounds overweight.

I also had to make an exception at Peter Luger this week. We ate there Thursday night with our friends Joan & David (no, not the shoe people – though they are always well shod, sometimes even in Joan & David’s. Unlike me: I’ve been informed by my former friend Carole -- and I quote -- "shoes are the weakest part of your wardrobe." This must be one reason I’ve opted for my virtually shoeless new lifestyle.)

Anyway, at Peter Luger, the four of us ordered: manhole-sized beefsteak tomatoes & onions; Shrimp Cocktail featuring prawns that could double as skull lobsters and an Everest of onion rolls (my favorite food item at Peter Luger, coated with sweet butter and dipped into their famous Peter Luger’s Sauce, which defies all flavor analysis.) But, wavering between steak for 3 and double-cut loin lamb chops as main courses, David, who always humors me by insisting I order anything I want, suggested we add a portion of lamb chops to our appetizer. (And I always do my best to indulge David in return.)

The Lucullan feast moved on to entrées without a pause (there’s no such thing at Peter Luger, where waiters rush platter after platter at you, seeking that elusive third table-turn that insures them humongous tips and take-home pay rivaling brain surgeons.) As our main course we shared two-inch-thick steak for four creamed spinach, two kinds of potatoes -- French fries and German home fries – all swallowed down with 2 bottles of Pinot Noir. I must report, though, that my stomach is no longer big enough for gorging at my former levels -- we left some steak on the platter. (Or maybe it was just that steak was a hair too rare…)

In Blue Bell, I did encounter the best cheese steaks since the Hubba Hubba, the Chili Station and the White House, all long-time favorites. I can never resist a cheese steak – in fact, as early as 1957 on the way to my Junior Prom, I insisted on a pit stop at the Hubba Hubba, despite being gowned in cascading layers of horizontal pink tulle and cocoa lace. (Yes, the dress was as hideous as it sounds, a fashion faux pas my mother -- her humiliation skills always honed to sushi-cleaving proportions -- made me wear again to my Senior Prom.)

This is by way of explaining why, in Blue Bell, I couldn’t help devouring a Pudge’s cheese steak 3 out of the 5 days I was there -- missing the other two only because they stupidly close Sundays and Mondays. A Pudge’s cheese steak bursts with tender shaved meat, a truly fantastic Marinara sauce and real Provolone – rather than your more typical Philadelphia-style, cheese-glop squirted from a can. And, finally, on my last pass, one of the fry guys at the long grill piled high with sizzling ingredients, succeeded making me well-done fried onions. A sublime eating experience, ranking right up there with Sal’s Pizza.

Speaking of Sal’s Pizza, people have been asking me all week what we miss from or about home. Sal’s would have to be on that very short, and increasingly shrinking, list, which includes, in no particular order:

  1. Crawling around behind the grandchildren making goo-goo noises, which I seem never to tire of
  2. Gathering together, which we did on Saturday & Sunday, for a giant family sleepover at John & Lisa’s, so everyone – and especially our granddaughter, Ronnie – could meet their triplet nephew/nieces/cousins.
  3. Impromptu morning coffee with a friend like MaryAnn Siskind, which I enjoyed on Friday.
  4. Spending a day schpatzeering around the local Bed Bath & Beyond with my friend Susan Nodiff, which we did on Thursday
  5. Being Queen for A Day – that is, not being the official cleaning lady and laundress -- which happened when Marly appeared on Saturday.
  6. Gossiping with my daughter Suey on a luxuriously long ride home from Philadelphia. Seeing her almost 7 months pregnant. Watching her competent grown-up hands on the steering wheel and remembering, like it was just yesterday, those once-graspy little girl hands..
  7. Seeing my son John wearing his aura of authority in his big, new corner office, which we got to do as soon as we landed.
  8. Watching my daughter-in-law Lisa cope with three 16-month-old babies – with almost no anxiety, lots of calm, a good deal of grace and an attitude that permits everyone to participate in their own way.
  9. A Susanna Romano haircut, which I got on Friday
  10. Dinners with good friends and our children, which we enjoyed every single night.
  11. Attending Suey’s baby shower, experiencing her sense of humor, her playfulness and her friends’ affection for her.
  12. Appreciating my step-daughters, Karen and Wendy, more and more every time I see them.
  13. In short, being with all the people we love, but in surroundings that no longer seem congruent with the changed selves we seemed to have evolved into. (Okay, except not yet in the eating department.)

No Babyish Baby Shower

Suey’s baby shower, by the way, was elegant to the Nth -- Bellinis and baked brie, mushroom canapés and sinfully good pastries, held in a super-sleek, minutely coordinated lower-Fifth avenue apartment -- completely gutted and reassembled to spare-no-detail, cost-no-object standards. The apartment missed not a single current design statement: wood Venetian blinds, hardwood floors, tapestry rugs, giant sleigh beds, glass-fronted kitchen cabinets, granite countertops, porcelain pedestal sinks and polar-white tiled bathrooms that an errant pubic hair wouldn’t dare land in. The walls, painted heavenly ice-cream-fresh colors, were crack-free and smooth as suede – and so were the peachy complexions on Suey's friends’ faces.

Was my generation ever so dermatologically blessed? I think not.

These young women looked like they just stepped out of a Woody Allen movie - perfect examples of Manhattan's young, mod married set. They looked pampered and patted and impeccably groomed – as if their daily regimen consists of nothing more than a round of aerobics and facials, manicures, massage and makeup sessions.

Wendy noted she was only one wearing beige. She was, in fact, a small island of Gap khaki in a sea of Barney’s black. Even the hostess’s puppy was a black Lab – as if chosen purposely, to deal with the problem of unwanted shedding. Though these young women looked spoiled and off-putting -- like they'd throw a temper tantrum if the dry cleaning was delivered late -- they were all personable and fun; most did, or still do, hold down serious, responsible jobs. We had a terrific time playing a cute parlor game the two hostesses invented for Suey to play, as well as banging on toy drums and singing a funny song her childhood best friend Beth had written.

Still, all this perfection only underscored further my feeling that our home just isn’t home any more:

Our apartment needs recarpeting, feels shabby compared to our pristine, just redone Lulu. My 25-year-old plants are about to expire from a combination of loneliness and the terrace door springing open in subzero weather.

Our building houses a business that no longer belongs to us. The office door upstairs is now kept tightly shut. When I slid it open this week I found out why. Dave, who bought Plastic Works from us, brings his two specimen -- but nonetheless crotch-sniffing -- huskies to work every day, and Gary – not exactly your dog aficionado -- has to step over their inert bodies, their feeding bowls, their assorted toys and gnawing devices to get to his office.

Suey’s baby booty is piled up in my study, waiting to be needed.

I no longer no how to dress. All week I had to stick to outfits I remembered that worked: otherwise I was in danger of major mismatches and wrong seasonitis.

The weather stinks.

And, last, the New York scene strikes me as growing more pretentious every day. Friday, at my haircut, seated next to me, as if holding court,was a young woman whose long, blunt-cut, streaked blonde mane was being blown straight as uncooked spaghetti. A junior executive somewhere -- I forget where, but certainly no Allan & Co investment banker, Wall Street arbitrageur or Merrill Lynch analyst -- she was treating Alex, Susanna’s assistant, and the entire salon, to a review of her stock portfolio, how it has performed and what life essentials – Gucci, Armani, Hamptons, Hermès -- she’s been able to buy or build as a result.

Now, just five years ago, this same person would have been whispering to her hairdresser about marital or boyfriend problems; bemoaning her fat, her hair, her girlfriends, her mother-in-law. Or, whining about being sardined with perfect strangers, albeit perfectly acceptable, carefully vetted Upper East Siders, into a Westhampton time-share. Nowadays she’s daytrading, dropping price tags and crowing over eighths of points. (By the way, the reason I heard her so loud and clear is that every last bit of beauty salon chitchat had ground to a halt as everyone there strove to take mental or magazine notes of her future trading plans.)

It occurs to me, however, that 6 months ago I might have jumped into her conversation – or worse, been conducting one myself. So I am grateful I have my priority hat on straight these days.

It should be clear by now why we prefer living aboard Lulu back in La La Land.

I can’t wait to land.


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